Saturday, March 05, 2011

Beepers and pay phones in Casablanca

While doing some research recently, I stumbled upon one of my favorite Miami Herald Tropic magazine articles from 25 years ago. (Remember Tropic magazine?)

"Welcome to Casablanca" by John Dorschner, ran on Sunday, June 15, 1986.

In the piece, written five years after the infamous Time magazine "Paradise Lost" cover story and 3 years after "Scarface" came to town, Dorschner attempted to show how 80's Miami had become, for some, a modern day Casablanca. However, in this remake, Crockett and Tubbs and more than a few Colombian drug dealers, replaced Bogart and Bergman.

Look at us now. Awash in crime, still. Aswarm with immigrants. Aboil with fear. And we are . . . Casablanca. They call it exotic intrigue. Romance. Multicultural excitement. This town has become a movie. Or more precisely: a TV show.

You can trace the image back four years, to the time that a television producer named Tony Yerkovich visited Miami. Yerkovich traveled around the town with undercover agents and visited nightspots with "guys on the other side of the law." He heard about dope dealers, gun smugglers, "propagandists for foreign governments," corrupt bank officials, exiled dictators and intelligence agents. Miami, he concluded, was "a modern-day American Casablanca."

Miami-Casablanca : The idea had been floating around since the '60s, mostly cropping up in minor magazine pieces, but Yerkovich was able to convert his vision into truly pop culture. His Miami Vice had banal dialogue and trite plots, but the show achieved a certain look, a feel. Suddenly the show was "hot."

Hordes of out-of-town journalists -- from the London Mail, Sacramento Bee, Paris Match, Dayton Daily News -- have been descending upon Miami, intent upon finding the . . . real story. "There had to be a hundred people doing 'the real Miami Vice,' " says Billy Yout, spokesman for the Miami office of the
Drug Enforcement Administration, who was interviewed by most of them.

When a Norwegian newsman suddenly showed up and asked an undercover Metro agent if he could follow him around for a day, the agent asked if Norway was about to start broadcasting Miami Vice. Yes, said the newsman, how did you know?
One of the problems Miami faced 25 years ago was a flourishing drug trade.

Back then, if you knew what to look for, the drug dealers weren't all that hard to spot. They did everything except wear uniforms with name tags.

But the tools of their trade - beepers and pay phones - seem downright quaint today. In some circles, just wearing a beeper meant you might be a drug dealer. (In the 1986 trial of "Miami River cop" Armando Estrada, another officer testified that he had seen Estrada "wearing a beeper.")

In one section of his 1986 Tropic story, Dorschner painted a fascinating picture of the stereotypical 80's drug dealer and drug deal. It's safe to say this is not how drug deals are conducted today.

It's quite easy to see a drug deal happening in South Florida. They're going on all around you, especially if you live in the southern suburbs. All you have to do is know what to look for.

Many dopers still deck themselves out in gold, with the Rolex watch and the Porsche convertible. But others, realizing the stereotypes, are toning themselves down when they go out working.

"Colombians are not overdressed," says Detective Marty Heckman, who -- like Belker on Hill Street Blues -- spends much of his time "hanging out," usually in Kendall shopping centers. "They're suave but not flashy. They like color-coordinated clothes -- if they have gray slacks, they'll have gray shoes. They're all like 5-8, 145-150 . . . beeper on the hip. And they linger by the pay phones, with expensive little black books with all sorts of codified numbers."

The beeper -- usually the digital-readout kind -- is their tool of the trade, such a giveaway that some dopers have started hiding theirs in ankle holsters.

Dope deals are always fluid, perhaps a dozen conversations and meetings, none of which lasts more than five minutes. Doper one beeps doper two to call him at a pay phone. Doper two does so, from another pay phone. Beeper to beeper, pay phone to pay phone, calls virtually impossible to trace. "Coin droppers," detectives like Heckman call them. Men who spend their days hanging around pay phones, usually in Kendall, because that's where most dopers live, and because they often are carrying considerable amounts of cash and they feel more certain they won't run into a random mugger in staid Kendall.

"Miller Square used to be a mecca for them," says Detective Heckman. "At 137th and Miller. But then the uniformed officers started hanging out there in the green and whites, and 'they scared the fish from the bay.' "

Billy Yout at DEA says dopers also like the bank of pay phones beside the Winn-Dixie in the Midway Mall center. Sometimes agents have seen dopers three deep at the phones, waiting for an available line. Dadeland is popular, and the Falls, and gas-station/convenience stores -- any pay phone where there is a large field of view, so that the dopers can check to see if they're being observed.

If you want to spend a little time, you can watch a deal taking place, or at least part of the negotiations. Look for luxury cars -- say, a Mercedes -- parked beside a Kendall pay phone. Or a rental car (rental cars have license-plate numbers beginning with Z), because there's a trend for dopers to seek the anonymity of a bland Oldsmobile rental.

What you see would go something like this scene, witnessed by a journalist on a weekday afternoon:

On Southwest 117th Avenue, a little north of Sunset Drive, a two-tone Lincoln was parked in front of a Farm Store. At a pay phone, a man was dressed casually, in black boots, nondesigner jeans, a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt. He was wearing a subdued gold-and-steel watch that appeared to be a $1,500 Concord model. He was chatting in a slow, dignified Spanish, using the formal "usted" manner of address.

When the journalist approached and picked up the adjoining pay phone, the man spoke quickly and hung up. A minute later, a beige Mercedes appeared. The Lincoln man walked over and slid into the passenger seat in front.

The Mercedes drove across the street. Three minutes later, it was back, and Mr. Lincoln climbed out, said goodbye to Mr. Mercedes and drove off in his own car.

The "meet" was over.

"That's a perfect profile of a narcotics meet," said Metro narcotics specialist Reddington, when told of the meeting. "That is so common, around any shopping mall in Dade County. More so in the southwest, but it happens all over. . . . It doesn't take a sixth grade education to see that he's not playing the stock market."

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